Quarantine and Hysteria

Quarantine!   Its Destruction and           New York        Health Hysteria

Upon the farcical Liverpudlian inspections during THE GREAT STARVATION, the establishment in 1799 of said Station at Staten Island NY; the lavish St. Nicholas Hospital; the Cinderella for the transport of the destitute and contaminated; the CAROLANS among the tides landing in NEW YORK who likely avoided the plagues; stevedores and boatmen; the NURSERY torched: “RIPPED from the pages of FRANKENSTEIN;” the GREAT illustrators of Harper’s and Leslie’s; the DISGUISED and ARMED MOB and the UTTER destruction by fire; the RETURN the following night SAID REBELS FINISH THE JOB; the perpetrators get OFF SCOT FREE; Death Riding on a BOWSPRIT.

During the Great Irish migration to the United States between 1845 and 1853, thousands of immigrants arrived in New York sick with one of the diseases common to sea travelers in the 19th century, and especially to the Irish: smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, or typhus (known as ship fever).  Much of the problem stemmed from lax medical inspections that allowed many Irish emigrants to board the packet ships in Liverpool or in Irish ports already infected with disease related to poverty, malnutrition and starvation.   Many other Irish became sick on the five-to-seven week journey across the Atlantic in the ships into which they were crowded that were designed for freight not people and became known as “coffin ships.”

After their arrival, the immigrants were taken to a quarantine hospital on a populated island six miles south of Manhattan.  Their ships were held in harbor for some times weeks on end, which in turn affected the flow of millions of dollars in international business now using a printable w2 form tools for taxes.  After years of the perception of diseases breaking out within their community and contentious debates within the medical community about the efficacy of the entire quarantine system, the Islanders—some of whom were wealthy New York merchants—rose up to remove the pestilence in their midst, with alarming speed and with the tacit approval of both government and respected men of medicine.  This is part of their story.

It began in Liverpool during the Irish Famine, when the Government-appointed doctors at Liverpool were paid at one pound for every hundred passengers inspected, which gave the “doctors” every incentive to pass, as fit, as many passengers as possible and in the shortest possible time.  The pressure was enormous, for in a single day, there could be as many as fifteen ships a day to clear, with the large American packets carrying upwards of 800 passengers.[1]

Vessels entering New York would be inspected more rigorously as the years passed but all it took was a single passenger or crew member with an infectious disease for an arriving ship to be redirected from the docks of Brooklyn or Manhattan to the piers of the hospital on Staten Island. For ships that were unlucky enough to be hit with yellow fever, the �Yellow Jack� flag would be hoisted and the ship would anchor far from the city, in New York’s lower bay, sometimes for six months or more.[2]

Quarantine was essential for the health of the city of New York, said its proponents.  It was needed to prevent �the introduction of all the unclean things that                                                    View of the Quarantine Grounds and Buildings, Staten Island.                                characterize pauperism, and grow the ranker in the
                  Lith. by Geo. Hayward, 120 Water St., N.Y. For D.T. Valentine’s Manual, 1859.                     process of importation.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
There had been a quarantine of sorts at New York since 1799, when the State legislature empowered health commissioners to set up the New York Marine Hospital on Staten Island.  Known simply as the Quarantine�the Hospital was located on a beautiful 30-acre tract of land on the northeastern shore of Staten Island, just a few feet south of where the Staten Island Ferry lands today.[3] [4]

Quarantine laws were early and regular features of American governmental and public health history. John Winthrop recorded that a “great mortality” plagued Barbadoes in 1647 prompting the General Court to issue a classic colonial quarantine order.  By 1717 Massachusetts had a hospital on Spectacle Island and an ongoing policy of directing infected vessels there for the removal of sick persons and infected articles. Ships remained at anchor until granted permission to put ashore by the governor and council, two justices of the peace, or Boston selectmen.

After battling yellow fever in 1798, Massachusetts took to cleansing ships with lime and empowered boards of health in Boston and Salem �to perform quarantine under such restrictions, regulations, and qualifications as they may judge expedient.” Such wide delegation of discretionary authority to administrative boards and officers signaled a new era in maritime quarantine regulation. By 1858 the Health Commissioners of the city of New York found it necessary to publish a separate volume to organize and synthesize the growing multiplicity of quarantine laws, ordinances, regulations, and rules. These included provisions for the operation of the Quarantine Station and Marine Hospital at Staten Island, supervised by a health officer, deputy health officer, physician, assistant physician, apothecary and chemist, and special port warden. These officers were invested with extraordinary powers to direct and remove vessels, persons, and cargo to the quarantine grounds; to inspect, examine, and observe vessels for signs of infection; to determine lengths of stay (up to 30 days); to cleanse, fumigate, ventilate, and otherwise purify vessels, cargo, bedding, and clothing, to destroy andy portion of bedding, clothing and cargo incapable of purification; to vaccinate persons under quarantine as necessary; to administer oaths and take affidavits during examination; to afix colors to quarantined vessels; to place indigent immigrants with the commissioners of emigration; to impose liens on vessels and cargo to cover the expense of removal; and make all necessary rules and regulations for quarantined vessels (even on an individual or ad hoc basis).[4.1]

It was located in Tompkinsville, a small village surrounded by the larger town of Castleton, and administered by both New York State and New York City. St. Nicholas Hospital was the Quarantine�s most prominent building: nearly 300 feet long, 50 feet wide, and capped by an observatory adorned with a statue of a sailor.  The hospital looked out over a large garden sloping toward the water, and on each story were piazzas �on which the convalescing patients were wont to sun themselves on pleasant days, and watch the passing vessels.� [5]

The Smallpox Hospital was one of the oldest structures on the grounds and had six patient wards and the Female Hospital, sometimes known as the Lower Hospital, was a two-story building fronting the Bay.[6]  To the north of the grounds were several buildings owned by the federal government and used by U.S. harbor inspectors, while to the south were several wooden houses where the doctors lived.[7]  Some smaller wooden buildings held offices.

The boatmen who carried passengers from their ships to the hospitals lived in six brick houses, while eight wooden, one-story shanties housed both patients and many of the stevedores who unloaded cargo from the boats. Other buildings included stables,                       View of the New York Quarantine, Staten Island, 1833
barns, coal houses, outhouses, wash houses, and storerooms.[8],[9]                    WJ Bennett (artist & engraver), Lewis P Clover (publisher) National Maritime Museum, London

  Map of the Marine Hospital Ground, 1845                                                                                                                                                                                               
When a medical inspector found one passenger ill on board an incoming vessel, all passengers and crew were grounded at the Quarantine. The Station’s small boat the Cinderella carried passengers from ships flying the yellow flag.  Most ships, however, anchored at the Passenger’s Block on the Quarantine’s longest pier and boatmen carried the sick down from the decks.[10]  Sick passengers and crew had their clothes removed to be washed on the spot, carried to wash houses, or burned. The clothes of those with different diseases were strictly separated. Boatman laid the ill in wagons and pushed them up the pathways to the appropriate hospitals while healthy passengers were kept in hospital quarters for observation. Cabin passengers and crew were put in the St. Nicholas�more a hotel than hospital�and steerage were housed in the shanties. If the healthy did not develop any symptoms of illness over a specified period of time�depending on the disease�they were released. Those who died were buried in a cemetery two miles from the grounds.

By 1846 all vessels coming into New York had to anchor in the �Quarantine Ground,� a stretch of the bay marked by two buoys, and wait to be inspected by a doctor. When THOMAS CAROLANand his wife arrived in July 1847, they were required to pay a head tax of fifty cents, which entitled them to treatment, if they fell ill within a year.[11]  Two months prior to their arrival, in May, a Board of Commissioners of Emigration was finally created, which gave advice and aid to immigrants, helped them find employment, and inspected the incoming ships for possible problems or disease.[12]

Having filled the Quarantine hospitals, all the spare rooms connected with the City Almshouse department were hired  at a dollar per week for each destitute emigrant, and a dollar and a half per week for the sick. But the introduction of fever patients at the Almshouse was attended with too much risk, and buildings were erected for their accommodation on Staten Island. These being still inadequate, the buildings on the Long Island Farms were leased, but the fear of contagion so alarmed the neighborhood, that the buildings were burned by incendiaries.�[13]


Former Nursery Torched in Ship Fever Scare

        The children were long gone when angry townsmen
        tore down and burned the original buildings of  the
New York City Almshouse Nursery in a midnight

        raid seemingly ripped from the pages of �Frankenstein.�

The burning referred to in the newspaper accounts was among the first of a wave of public hysteria over contagious diseases that led to the destruction and burning of infirmaries housing primarily Irish immigrants.  Long Island Farms was established in 1832 by the New York City Almshouse Juvenile Department in a move, radical at the time, to separate �destitute children from the horrid examples of their elders at the main almshouse.�  But the almshouse had closed the facility earlier that spring anticipating the completion of its new complex on Randall�s Island, while the children were lodged temporarily at the almshouse proper on Blackwell�s Island.  Ironically, the farms of Long Island would one day supply 18 percent of all potatoes sold in New York City.

Just a month before THOMAS CAROLAN sailed for New                 View of the quarantine grounds and buildings at Staten Island, N.Y                              York with his family, the New York Commission on
                              Leslie’s Monthly Magazine, September 13, 1856                                            Immigration�overwhelmed already with the sick from Ireland needing quarantine�contracted to lease the farm for use as temporary hospitals to help with the overflow.  The Rev. W. W. Niles had recently purchased three of the abandoned Nursery buildings at public auction.  He signed papers with the Commission on Wednesday, 26 May 1847, with the first quarantined immigrant patients expected the very next day. 
According to the Williamsburgh Post, a town meeting in nearby Astoria gathered upwards of 70 townspeople, who marched to the site immediately following the meeting, with �but one axe among them, though every man, almost, had a bludgeon of wood.�  The watchman suggested the mob burn the buildings down in daylight, but they replied, ��by that time the contagion would be among them, hence they were resolved to take time by the forelock, and so to work they went.�
First, they entered the middle house and from within broke all the windows. This accomplished, they cut up the doors for kindling wood and made two fires, one in the school department, the other in the dormitory wing. They were all-frame houses, and burned with great rapidity.
This middle house was consumed first. Indeed the crowd were about to depart, satisfied with the destruction, but on a second thought they returned and carried flaming brands from the burning pile with which they soon set the other two buildings in a blaze.

Give Me Your Poor, Your Starving, Your Sick

If any sick passengers were discovered onboard ships in New York Harbor, they were sent to the Marine Hospital on Staten Island and the ship was supposed to be quarantined for thirty days. However the inspection was not much more thorough than the one at Liverpool.  Ship masters and their officers did what they could to help emigrants pass inspection.  Oftentimes, they might hide them, if necessary, or land sick passengers illegally on the New Jersey shore. There were even cases of quarantined passengers taking themselves off in boats to the city to avoid inspectors.

The Marine Hospital was in a residential area for city workers, who did not like the quarantine for fear of contamination and because of the noise and the smell of the burial ground. Almost immediately in 1847, the number of arrivals to the quarantine exceeded the number who could housed there, and immigrants were released prematurely.  Consequentially, 2,000 people that summer died in New York City. In 1847, there were 600 cases of smallpox and 3,000 cases of typhus. In 1852 more than one in six of the patients in Quarantine died.[14]

THOMAS CAROLAN and his family were among 47,321 passengers from Ireland and England who arrived in New York between May 5th and September 30th, 1847.  Of these, exactly 3,792 were quarantined and 703 died.  Said the Commissioners of Immigration in October:

�The names, ages, and places of birth, of the dead, are not given.  This is an oversight which ought to be corrected.  It seems, also, that no provision was made for the erection of any mem

orial over their graves.�[15]

Records show the Quarantine sometimes housed more than 1,500 passengers and sailors at one time, and had treated more than 8,000 patients over the course of a year.[16] [17]  In one typical year, the Quarantine required 108,010 pounds of bread, 1,334 pounds of coffee, and 235 gallons of brandy.[18] Another year, the Quarantine purchased                        Inspection at Quarantine, Scribner’s Monthly, 1877
17 barrels of lime, 1,300 leeches, and 556 coffins.[19]

Headed by a state-appointed Health Officer, the hospital relied on two or three in-house physicians appointed by the city, as well as nurses and orderlies, who assisted in treating patients, washing clothes, cooking meals, and handling patient burials. Six to eight boatmen were responsible for the transport of patients from infected vessels, and the hospital employed stevedores–the manual laborers responsible for unloading cargo from infected ships to be destroyed or stored. These dockworkers far outnumbered the rest of the staff, and in some years there were more than 100 stevedores employed at the Quarantine, hired as a group from a stevedore house on Manhattan’s South Street for stints of six weeks to three months.[20]

William Smith, a power-loom weaver from Manchester, England, recorded his experiences in a little book entitled A Voice From the Steerage.  He caught fever and alleges that in the Marine Hospital, the patients were cruelly treated.  The beds, he wrote, were grids of iron bars with a little straw laid on top. The staff inflicted torture on the sick, who were reduced, by fever, to skin and bones.  The doctors were negligent and indifferent, and the male nurses took a delight in abusing and thwarting the helpless, striking them for �innocent errors.�  The food was inedible and conditions horribly unsanitary. The roofs leaked and the patients� beds were appallingly drenched.[23]

Despite several proposals to remove the hospital, the main quarantine station, Marine Hospital, remained at Tompkinsville, at the north east of the island. But by 1849, only immigrants with contagious diseases were sent there. To accommodate the orphans, the convalescents, or the emigrants not ill of contagious diseases, the health commissioners                 View of Ward’s Island State Emigrant Refuge and Hospital Institutions                    opened another hospital in 1847 on Ward’s Island in the East River,                                                                                                                                                  known as Ward’s Island Emigrant Hospital and Refuge. Opened in 1847 specifically for sick anddestitute immigrants, the hospital was the largest hospital complex in the world during the 1850s.  But people at Ward’s Island claimed that there was a lack of food, that the dead were used for medical dissection without the family�s approval, and that due to poor conditions the death rate was extremely high. Some women claimed to have been sexually assaulted by employees or other immigrants and nothing was done.[21]  <>�Many were destitute of clothing, and from May to September (1847), ten thousand three hundred and eight articles of dress were made at Ward�s Island and furnished to them, by direction of the Commissioners.  Hundreds have been provided with employment in the interior of the state, and many forwarded West at the expense of the Commissioners.�[22]
The Wars

After years of vainly arguing for its closure, on the evening of September 1, 1858, �disguised and armed residents� of surrounding communities (Mobs from New Brighton and Edgewater) seized the Marine Hospital and burned down many of the buildings.  The fire department, sympathetic to the mob, arrived and claimed their fire hoses had been cut.  Only one main structure was left standing, the Female Hospital, where all patients were moved. Two people had died, one from fever and another, a stevedore, was shot over an unrelated vendetta.  The following day, a pamphlet circulated that read:
A Meeting of the Citizens of Richmond County, will be held at Nautilus Hall, Tompkinsville, this Evening,  Sept. 2 at 7 1-2 o’clock, For the purpose of making arrangements to celebrate the burning of the Shanties and Hospitals at the Quarantine ground last evening, and to transact such business as may come before the  meeting. September 2d, 1858.[24]                                                                                  “Attack on the Quarantine Establishment, on September 1, 1858” in Harper’s Weekly, September 11, 1858.

More than 200 people attended the meeting where resolutions were passed that reiterated the right of the local citizens to rid their community of a public health hazard and that called for the placement of a new Quarantine at the Battery in New York. When night fell, the crowds departed from Nautilus Hall and reappeared on the Quarantine grounds, again carrying camphene, straw, and matches, determined to burn every structure that remained on the grounds.

Two of the hospitals doctors had sent all of the healthy passengers and crew to Ward�s Island and had removed all of the patients to the grass beside the wall before the mob arrived. As the Female Hospital went up in flames, the frightened patients were stuck between two burning buildings and the wall, and the doctors poured buckets of water on the sick to keep their temperatures down.[25]

                        Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,

The gaunt features and sunken eyes of these poor wretches were perfectly visible in the light of the burning dwelling behind them. Burning cinders fell in showers among them. In full view before them was the noble edifice in which they had been sheltered and nursed, now wrapped in flame from basement to dome.  The roar of the flames, the clouds of dense smoke rolling upward, the furious outcries of the mob, crazy with their infernal work, all formed a scene most horrible and impressive.[26]

The body of the engineer who had died during the night of yellow fever remained in the Female Hospital. Jim, the �dead-man� who was in charge of handling patient corpses, �rushed into the Hospital and, seizing the body,  carried it on his arm and laid it on a bier in the open air.�[27] Some patients were eventually moved to a boat docked offshore, but for the length of the night, the patients, the two doctors, the “dead-man,” and the yellow fever corpse were exposed to the night sky and the rain that fell until nearly dawn.

By the morning of September 3, the Quarantine grounds had been scorched clean, and the remaining staff and patients were scrounging a breakfast from the supplies that had been spared by the blaze.  The two doctors, Bissell and Walser, continued to attend to the patients now sleeping under makeshift tarps, though neither had slept in two nights and their spare moments were filled scratching out pleading letters for help to their bosses across the harbor. The Times reported the following day:

        Destruction of Quarantine Buildings Near Tompkinsville”          The appearance of the Quarantine Grounds … was desolate in the extreme.
      in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 18, 1858         The Quarantine wharfs were still on fire; the blackened pillars and walls of the Female
Hospital and the adjoining buildings rising out of the ruins that surrounded them, the blue smoke rising over them and borne away by the wind from the south-east that prevailed all day, the smouldering heaps of ashes further back where the dwellings of the physicians and the quarters of the laborers formerly stood–the whole scene was in marked contrast to that which was presented there a few days ago.

After more than 50 years of opposition, Staten Islanders had erased the Quarantine from existence.  The governor declared the island in rebellion and sent troops against the  Staten Islanders, but without effect. John A. King, a resident of Long Island, was at that time governor.

He proclaimed Staten Island under martial law, but the inhabitants remained obdurate. After destroying 32 buildings, they would never lay down their arms until the Yellow Jack was removed.  Ultimately Richmond County was compelled to pay for all the losses occasioned, but the state receded from its position and abandoned its claim to the right of quarantine on Staten Island. The government at a loss:  several steamships served as floating hospitals for a number of years before two islands were acquired for the new quarantine station of New York.


 “Ruins of Quarantine Establishment, Staten Island” in Harper’s Weekly, September 11, 1858.

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[1] Hollett, David. Passage to the New World: Packet Ships and Irish Famine Emigrants, 1845-1851. Abergavenny, Great Britain: P.M. Heaton Publishing, 1995.

[2] Testimony taken before Judge Metcalfe in the case of the People against Ray Tompkins and John C. Thompson charged with the destruction of the Quarantine buildings. New York: Baptist and Taylor, Book and Job Printers; 1859.

[3] Committee appointed by the House of Assembly, at its last session, to inquire into the propriety of the removal of the Quarantine establishment. Communication to state of New York, No. 60, in Assembly; January 30, 1849.

[4] Old pamphlet, just found, tells of burning of Quarantine by citizens. Unknown newspaper, undated (probably Staten Island Advance, early 20th century). Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences Quarantine Collection.
[4.1] Laws Relative to Quarantine and to the Public Health of the City of New York. New York: 1858. sec. 14, pp.8-9.  From Novak, William J. The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

[5] Destruction of Quarantine completed. The New York Daily Tribune 1858 Sep 4;5:1.

[6] Harris E. Description of the Quarantine buildings. The New York Herald 1858 Sep 3;1:1.

[7] Ewen D. Map of the Marine Hospital ground, Staten Island: reduced from a survey made by John Ewen. Albany (NY): R. H. Pease Lith.; 1845 March.

[8] Testimony taken before Judge Metcalfe in the case of the People against Ray Tompkins and John C. Thompson charged with the destruction of the Quarantine buildings. New York: Baptist and Taylor, Book and Job Printers; 1859.

[9] The rebellion on Staten Island. The New York Herald 1858 Sep 4;1:2.

[10] Testimony taken before Judge Metcalfe in the case of the People against Ray Tompkins and John C. Thompson charged with the destruction of the Quarantine buildings. New York: Baptist and Taylor, Book and Job Printers; 1859.

[11] Ernst R. Immigrant life in New York City, 1825-1863. New York: King’s Crown Press; 1949.

[12] Norothy, Ann. Strangers at the Door: Ellis Island, Castle Garden, and the Great Migration to America. Riverside, CT: The Chatham Press, Inc.,1971.

[13] New York newspaper. http://www.dcs.uwaterloo.ca/~marj/genealogy/voyages/newspapers1847.html

[14] Norothy.

[15] New York newspaper.

[16] Testimony taken before Judge Metcalfe in the case of the People against Ray Tompkins and John C. Thompson charged with the destruction of the Quarantine buildings. New York: Baptist and Taylor, Book and Job Printers; 1859.

[17] Annual report of the Commissioners of Emigration, 1860. Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences Quarantine Collection.

[18] Annual report of the Commissioners of Emigration, 1851. Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences Quarantine Collection.

[19] Annual report of the Commissioners of Emigration, 1850. Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences Quarantine Collection.

[20] Testimony taken before Judge Metcalfe in the case of the People against Ray Tompkins and John C. Thompson charged with the destruction of the Quarantine buildings. New York: Baptist and Taylor, Book and Job Printers; 1859.

[21] New York newspaper.

[22] Ibid.

[23] William Smith, An Emigrant’s Narrative; or a Voice from the Steerage (New York: W. Smith, 1850)

[24] A meeting of the citizens of Richmond County [poster] ; 1858 Sep 2. Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences Print Collection.

[25] Stephenson, Kathryn. �The quarantine war: the burning of the New York Marine Hospital in 1858.� Public Health Reports, Jan-Feb, 2004.

[26] The Quarantine conflagration. The New York Times 1858 Sep 4;1:1.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

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